Todd Helton’s challenge has nothing to do with the fastball or slider.
He’s battling Father Time.
And it has taken a toll on the man who has been the face of the Rockies franchise for more than 15 years.
With his 39th birthday lurking on Aug. 20, Helton was placed on the disabled list Friday with a right hip inflammation that affected the left-handed-swinging slugger’s ability to lift his right leg in his hitting approach.
After playing in 144 or more games in each of his first 10 big-league seasons, Helton found himself on the DL for the third time in five years.
That, more than his .235 batting average so far this season, eats at Helton, a career .320 hitter whose eventual Hall of Fame candidacy will be the first real test of the prejudice voters will have toward Coors Field.
"I enjoy the challenges the game brings, starting with getting my body ready, and the last five years that has been more of a challenge,’’ Helton said. ”I used to enjoy the process of playing with an injury and finding a way to make adjustments to succeed despite (the injury). Not now.”
Helton has never been afraid to take a hit and get back up. A second-round draft choice of the San Diego Padres when he came out of Knoxville Central High School in 1992, he opted instead to attend the University of Tennessee, where he not only made an impact on the baseball field but also was the quarterback who called signals for the Volunteers between future NFL starters Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning.
"You never want (the other team) to see you grimace,’’ said Helton.
Times, however, change.
And, now, instead of ignoring injuries, Helton is having to face an unwanted reality. Now there are growing questions about a nearing end to his career.
You can be sure Helton’s decision will be based on how he feels, not his bank account. For all the adulation he has received during his career, Helton never has lost touch with his humble upbringing.
He’s taken care of his considerable career earnings.
Besides, two years ago, to help the Rockies free room in the budget to sign long-term deals with Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, Helton reworked his contract to defer a chunk of money and limited his guarantees in 2012 and 2013 to $4.9 million and $5 million.
That’s not chicken feed. It is, however, far from the $23 million his previous deal would have earned him for playing this season.
More important to Helton, though, is his ability to be a factor on the field, if he is going to be on the roster.
Since he arrived in the big leagues, he has been one of the most feared clutch hitters in the game. The late Sparky Anderson, a Hall of Fame manager, said that before every series his team played he would pinpoint one player in the opposing lineup he was not going to allow to beat his team.
Helton would have been that guy if Anderson had managed against the Rockies.
‘"It’s about confidence,” said Helton teammate Jason Giambi, an elite clutch hitter himself. ”He has confidence in every at-bat, and he wants to be up in those situations. A lot of guys say they want to be put there, but most guys are kidding themselves. Todd? He loves it.”
Assorted stats underscore Helton’s success.
He has hit .329 against right-handed pitchers in his career, .319 against right-handed starters, .298 against left-handed pitchers, .323 against left-handed starters. His .299 average for the month of April is the only sub-.300 monthly average of his career.
He has hit .328 in his career with runners in scoring position, .298 with two outs. He has hit .300 in his career against every team in the National League except the Los Angeles Dodgers (.290) and St. Louis (.288). And two strikes? Most hitters struggle to hit .200 with a two-strike count. Helton has hit .263.
”Most of the time I am confident I can put the ball in play and can foul a pitch off,” Helton said. ”That’s one of my biggest assets. Ninety percent of the time, if you make a pitcher throw a number of pitches, he is going to give you one to hit.”
The challenge facing Helton is how many more times he will get that chance to face that late-inning challenge.